Team GB women want to keep Olympic bounce
Leading footballers hope for increased attendances to follow London 2012 coverage
Tomorrow, 20 days after playing Brazil, at Wembley, in front of 70,584 spectators, Alex Scott will return to club football. It is first v second as Scott's Arsenal are hosted by Everton. Six other members of the Team GB Olympic team that beat Brazil are likely to be playing, including goalscorer Steph Houghton. The crowd, though, will be rather smaller, about 70,000 smaller. So will the venue, Evo-Stik Northern Premier League Marine FC's humble Arriva Stadium, which is so hemmed in by housing one touchline has no room for fans, just netting, to keep wayward passes from landing in back gardens.
"It's not Wembley, but it's a blessing going back into club football," Scott said yesterday. "The day after we were knocked out [by Canada, in the quarter-finals] I went back home and thought, 'now what?'" Scott got over the initial ennui by returning to the Olympic Village and watching sport, notably Usain Bolt in the 100m, but that only delayed the post-Games hangover. "So I'm glad the second half of the [FA Women's Super League] season has started," she added. "Now we have to build on the Olympics and try and grow the league."
"The challenge," said Kelly Simmons, head of national game at the Football Association, is two-fold. "We have to try and get those who saw GB play, and know players like Steph and Alex, to support the England team. We've a really important game coming up against Croatia at Walsall [19 September], which if we win will take the team to the 2013 European Championship in Sweden. And we have to use the profile of the Olympians to get people to come and watch the Super League. Sixteen of the 18 GB Olympic players are in the WSL."
Last year was the WSL's first. Gates increased by 600 per cent on those previously achieved by the Women's Premier League but, even with a spike after England reached the World Cup quarter-finals in Germany, that only translated into an average attendance of 550. Gates were similar in the first half of the WSL season despite the uplift of a 5,052 attendance when Arsenal played a match at the Emirates. "Our gates are good for domestic women's sport," noted Simmons. "We are hoping there will now be a post-Olympic boost as there was after the World Cup when a team like Everton, who had players like Jill Scott and Fara Williams, went from averaging 500 to about 1,200."
But even Arsenal, European champions in 2007 and far more successful than the club's men's team in recent years, usually play in front of fewer than 1,000, at Borehamwood. Most clubs play at non-league grounds, often on poor pitches, especially, this being a summer league, in the first half of the season in the immediate aftermath of the men's campaign. Doncaster play at the Keepmoat and Everton have played on the astroturf at Widnes, but Simmons thinks the immediate future lies in purpose-built stages such as Bristol Academy's 1,500-capacity ground.
In October, the FA will publish a strategy for the future of the women's game. This is the second season of what has become a three-year, £3m FA commitment to WSL, but both the ESPN TV deal and Continental Tyres League Cup sponsorship expire this year. "We do need to build the fan base," said Simmons. "It adds credibility and provides revenue." It is affordable, accessible, family-friendly. Lots of people remarked on how much they enjoyed the atmosphere at the Olympic matches."
It is certainly affordable. The most expensive league tickets are £6 while the England match is a fiver. Given 92 per cent of fans said tickets for the men's game were too expensive, in a survey this week by the Football Supporters' Federation, the women's game offers a cut-price alternative.
A second division, allowing promotion and relegation, is the aim and Alex Scott would like to see oversees players arriving to raise the standard further. However, she knows from experience, having played in the US Women's Professional Soccer league with Boston Breakers when the competition went bust last year, it must be, she said, "small steps at a time".
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